Have you ever seen a Muslim woman skateboarding with heels? A Muslim veiled woman fencing at Olympics level? A veiled woman performing handstands, or juggling in the street?
Well you might see me doing one of those things if you check out a two-and-a-half minute video shot by two Brooklyn-based friends, Habib Yazdi and Abbas Rattani.
The video features a dozen Muslim women; all of us veiled, dressed modestly but wearing the latest trends. Our hair is partially covered, totally covered, or sometimes wrapped in a turban. Mixed with the Jay-Z's "Somewhere in America" soundtrack, the video offers an antidote to prevailing western stereotypes of Muslim, veiled women as inactive, passive, uniform in their appearance, and hidden.
Shot in five cities--New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Hillsborough, S.C.--the mission of the video is to project a positive, rarely seen image of veiled Muslim women living IN the West. A year after participating in the video, I am pleasantly surprised to find it doing just that, offering an image that is both joyful and realistic.
Released on Nov. 30 the video is rapidly attracting viewers on Youtube and being heavily shared on Facebook and other websites. It was removed from Vimeo on Dec. 3 for copyright infringement involving the soundtrack, but had amassed 70,000 views within three days of being made public.
I took part in that project as a model for the New York-based Underwraps agency. We shot in a cold Saturday afternoon in December 2012 in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, with two others models and the head of the agency, Nailah Lymus.
From climbing on trees to scaling to the top of shipping containers to performing stunts, the intense activity on that shoot made us almost forget the biting cold.
Habib Yazdi directed us with the help of a producer named Sara Aghajanian. They said they wanted to project an image of strong and confident veiled Muslim women. They wanted something that mainstream media has never showed. The one and only rule they gave us was "Be yourself and have fun!"
A few days ago, I sat with Yazdi, a 27-year-old American Muslim of Iranian heritage, at a diner in Manhattan and learned more about what the project meant to him. Born and raised in Texas, he said he was ridiculed and taunted in high school for having a mother who wore the hijab.
"It was always on my mind, 'why is it ridiculed that my mom dresses like this?' And 'why is it seen as something lesser or inferior to other women?' I think that kinda stayed with me for a long time," Yazdi said.
Finding Fashion in Iran
After being teased in the United States by those who had no understanding of the veil that his mother was wearing, Yazdi remembered being pleasantly surprised when he encountered Iranian women wearing the veil in a country where it is mandatory.
"I saw a lot of young women who were forced to wear the scarf but they do it in such a fashionable way such as it defied the whole meaning behind why you are supposed to wear it. I was really taken by their strong sense of fashion there and how they use these restrictions imposed by the government to rebel within these restrictions," he said.
Yazdi has not showed the video to his mother yet but he's sure she will like it.
With its lack of narration, its trendy look and dynamic hip hop soundtrack, Yazdi and Rattani adopt a commercial approach meant to popularize the image of veiled Muslim women as "bold, powerful, young, rebellious, and fashionable women," Yazdi said. "We want to give people a different experience of what they tend to see and hear about Muslim women. You see how easy it is to manipulate images to create an idea, so for us it was like, why don't we do the same thing? Why don't we do our commercial and manipulate the images in our favor?"
If this kind of media were more widespread, the director thinks it could help change perceptions about Islam and women.
"Imagine if these images of Muslin women we have in the video are more prevalent, it becomes cool, it becomes hip, it becomes something that you are exposed to," said Yazdi. "If you see this and it is presented in such a fun and cool capacity, everyone is going to respond to that."
A Realistic Depiction
I can't speak out enough about the importance I see of this effort. The woman that I am in that video--doing a handstand among other things--is the woman that I am every day. In addition to my commitment to journalism, I am a very active woman. I'm into sports. I love being creative through fashion. Today I no longer wear the hijab but I covered my hair for nearly two years. During that time--as in none other--I found I had to show and prove that I was not inferior.
I decided to remove the veil just a few weeks before the Underwraps Agency put me on the set for this shooting, with my hair wrapped in a black turban.
People unfamiliar with Islam often assume a woman cannot workout, cannot play sports, cannot go out on her own, must be accompanied by a male relative, and so forth. In some parts of the world--such as Saudi Arabia--these restrictions might apply. For most of us, fortunately, they do not.
To combat the reductive stereotypes, we need more media that reflects our multi-faceted identities as Muslim women. It might not be every day that you witness veiled Muslim women wearing heels and skateboarding. But if you are ready to perceive us, you will come across plenty of active, funky, joyful, confident Muslim women who are also wearing the veil.
Each model in the video offers strong examples of what it means to be Muslim woman in America. There's Marwa Atik, co-founder and designer of Vela, a Los-Angeles based hijab company; Ibtihaj Muhammad, the American Olympic fencer; and Noor Tagoori, a young CBS radio journalist whose dream is to become the first Hijabi anchorwoman or talk show host on American television.
Jay-Z's song "Somewhere in America" has roused some controversy online because of two curse words in the track. Yazdi and Rattani have since released another video with a sanitized version of the song.
Otherwise, the music is essential to the message of "all things being possible in America," Yazdi said. "It is almost a shout out to say okay there are some good things here. As much as this country is to blame for the images that were very harmful for Muslim women, it is still a place where you can dress like this, act like this and be like this."
I strongly share that view. When I decided to wear the hijab, I felt comfortable doing so because I was living in the United States where freedom of belief really does seem to exist. As a French citizen, I was never AS uncomfortable as when I traveled home with my hair covered. Wearing hijab is not allowed in school and public jobs in France and covering your hair is often perceived as a lack of social integration. In the United States, by contrast, it can be a way to follow the director's orders and "be myself and have fun."
Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women's eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa. She specializes in Middle East, North Africa and women in Islam.